So, most of you probably know that classic Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll”:
Jenny said when she was just five years old,
There was nothing happening at all.
Every time she puts on the radio,
There was nothing goin’ down at all – not at all.
Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station,
You know she don’t believe what she heard at all.
She started shakin’ to that fine, fine music,
You know her life was saved by rock and roll.
What occured to me as I listened to it this morning is that this kind of experience would be utterly unlikely to happen today, because New York radio rather notoriously sucks. Now, normally “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market,” which means you’d expect a densely packed market like New York City to have all sorts of interesting niche stations springing up. My guess—pure speculation—is that because current technology and spectrum policy limit the number of FM stations to well below what the New York Market could bear, what ends up happening is that the market is actually able to sustain at a profitable level enough Clear Channel–style top-40 schlock stations that the more interesting independent sorts that pop up in less dense urban areas get crowded out. Imagine every town in America got exactly five movie theatres, regardless of size. Ironically, in the smaller towns, three or four theatres would probably satisfy the total demand for the mainstream Hollywood movies coming out, and one or two would be left catering to the minority that was interested in art-house or foreign flicks. In Manhattan, though, those five theatres could easily sell out every showing of The Punisher or Scooby Doo 2 and still have lines at the door, so with a limit on the number of theatres in place, they stick with plucking that low-hanging mass-market fruit.